This October I had the distinct pleasure of trying my hand at something totally new to me: farming. And when I say farming, I mean learning how to defoliate sugar beets, because that was the only part of the farming process in which I participated. Let me tell you, that one job was enough to give me a whole new appreciation for America’s farmers and those innocent little bags of sugar sitting on the grocery store’s shelves.
Where to begin? At the beginning would be good, I suppose…. ha! The anticipation running up to sugar beet harvest is high. The farmers and the veteran workers are all very excitable in the days leading up to the harvest. You can feel the energy humming in the air, hear it in their voices, and see it on their faces as they work. There’s quite a bit of prep to do before harvest starts. There are an incredible number of machines involved in the process, and all of those machines need to be tuned up before harvest begins. I was working for my uncle and cousins, who farm, amongst other crops, 800 acres of sugar beets. One acre is sort of close to the size of a football field (it’s not exact, but fairly close). So, that’s a lot of sugar beets!
Back to the machines: to harvest sugar beets, you need at least two tractors – one to haul the defoliator and one to haul the digger. The defoliator cuts the tops off the beets and the digger digs them up. It’s helpful to have spare tractors, diggers, and defoliators around. You never know when something might happen. (A tire might unexpectedly fall off the machine you’re driving, for example. More about that later.) You also need a tractor on standby in the field to pull the trucks and semis out of the mud. They have a tendency to get stuck. I think my uncle/cousins have 10 or 11 trucks they use to haul the beets out of the field to the “dump,” aka processing plant.
Driving the trucks to the dump is the most dangerous part of harvest, I think. The trucks are very heavy when they’re loaded up, and they’re driven down lots of narrow dirt roads. These days they also have to share the road with oil tankers, who I’ve gathered are not the friendliest nor the safest drivers on the planet. Sometimes the beet trucks tip over. That happened to one of our guys this year. Thankfully, no one was hurt.
I spent the days leading up to harvest learning how to drive a tractor and cleaning tractors and trucks. When I first arrived, I was put in a tractor that was pulling a leveler. Basically, I was smoothing the ruts and clumps out of fields that had already been harvested (crops rotate fields, so the fields I leveled will have beets next year but this year they had beans or wheat or something else). So, I drove up and back, up and back, across the fields, and the leveler leveled away behind me. When I got back to the house, my aunt asked me what I’d been doing, and I couldn’t remember the word “leveler,” (I know, I know) so I told her I’d been ironing the fields. Which is basically what I was doing. Making them all flat and pretty. She got a good laugh out of my terminology, but she knew exactly what I was talking about!
The hardest part of learning to drive a tractor was learning how to back up with the implement. I have no experience backing up with boats or trailers or anything else, so that was tricky for me. It’s counter-intuitive, the way you have to turn the steering wheel to get the implement to turn properly behind you. My uncle ended up putting two stakes in the middle of an empty field. I spent some time practicing, backing up and pulling forward in between the stakes. That helped a lot. I think I’m going to have to help my dad with his boat next year! It’s a good skill to have and while it made me super frustrated when I was learning (and embarrassed, when other people were watching me!), I’m glad I learned it.
I almost forgot, in addition to learning how to drive a tractor and cleaning tractors and trucks (particularly their windows), I also got roped into cleaning out the MOST DISGUSTING trailer I’ve ever seen in my entire life. No joke. I still puke in my mouth a bit when I think about it. Backstory: so, because harvesting sugar beets (and probably any other crop, I imagine) is such a process, it involves hiring lots of people to help, mostly to drive those 10 trucks and all of the different tractors, which run 24/7 once harvest starts. All of these people need places to sleep. This year, there were two women workers: me, and Sarah. Luckily, I was family and so I got to stay in the house. Thank God. My cousin, John, bought a trailer that had been repo’ed, with the idea that Sarah would stay in it. (All of the men get crammed together in other places.) In theory, it was a nice idea. However…
This was the most mouse-infested dwelling I’d ever been in. It was like a mouse resort. A mouse haven. A mouse Disney World. I didn’t actually see any mice, but by the amount of droppings and the smell – Oh my gosh the SMELL – you’d think it was a paradise that every mouse on the planet had visited. I spent a few long hours one night vacuuming up those droppings and putting clean sheets on the bed. It looked better but it didn’t make a dent in the thick, piss-drenched stench. The next day I went back out there with hot bleach water and bleached the bejeezus out of the place. I used up all but about a tablespoon of my aunt’s bleach.
I thought I’d finished, but then I opened the oven. Apparently I’d forgotten to check it the night before. When I saw what was inside, I was tempted to just turn it on and burn the place down. The bottom half of the oven, up to the middle rack, was completely packed with shredded insulation and turds. All of the turds from the night before, from the entirety of the trailer, from all of its cupboards and hidey-holes, were probably only a quarter as many as what was packed into that oven. We’re talking turds on top of turds on top of turds here, folks. I vacuumed them all out (finding four – yes four – pot and skillet lids hidden in the near-impenetrable insulation-turd forest). Then I shut the oven door and put a note on the range telling Sarah not to use it. I was afraid she’d get mouse poisoning.
I asked her a week or so into the harvest what she thought of her living quarters, and she seemed pleased. This is despite the fact that she didn’t have running water or access to the toilet, which I flat-out refused to clean. I’m going to spare you the details regarding that little throne. Suffice to say, cleaning it would have had to commence with a shovel or big spoon. So, I guess the moral of the story is: what you don’t know can’t hurt you. I personally would not have been able to sleep one wink in there.
Back to harvest: Did you know that farmers don’t get to choose when to harvest the beets? Neither did I! It’s all under contract with the sugar processing plants. The plant tells you when you can start. It’s tied into the weather pretty heavily, as far as I could tell. Sugar beets have a long growing season, so you want to leave them in the ground as long as possible, but you don’t want them to freeze. My uncle’s farm is in North Dakota, did I mention that?
The younger guys were chomping at the bit to get going as soon as they were allowed. My uncle cautioned them to wait, as rain was forecast for the first day of harvest, and he didn’t want to start things off with a mudbath. The weather was pretty beautiful for the vast majority of harvest, actually. The week prior to the start we had a few days in the 90s. But the first week of October, it cooled off to the 60s and 70s. It dropped low enough at night to keep the temperature of the beets in the correct range. The internal temp of the beets needs to be above freezing, but below 55*F. I’m not entirely sure what happens if the beets are too hot; I think you can’t squeeze as much sugar out of them. We did have one day where it was too warm and harvesting got shut down (the dump stops accepting beets). That night, when it was cooler, it was too windy, and the dump stayed closed. Some of their equipment gets broken in high winds, apparently. And we had a few rain showers, which we sometimes waited out in the fields. Those fields turn to mud really quickly, though, and the trucks have a really hard time moving through them, particularly when they’re loaded down with beets. The dump also doesn’t like to collect beets when it’s wet, so they will often shut down during rain as well. So really, there’s a very small window of opportunity in which to actually harvest the durn things. It’s all part of the challenge, which my uncle claims is why sugar beets are the “most fun crop” to grow.
Stayed tuned for the second half of “So you want to be a farmer…” where you will hear about tires mysteriously falling off of tractors, meet “Gary’s tractor,” have a good laugh, see lots of pictures, and of course, become more enlightened about how food gets to your table!